HB 1231 and 1218 are insults to Black culture and heritage. Arkansas schools should teach history regardless of history’s implications.

The following piece is written by one of our interns, Shaunell Henderson, a sophomore at Hendrix College pursuing an interdisciplinary major in Human Rights. She is also Pre-Law track with hopes of using her legal education to advocate for underrepresented communities. Her core passions lie in social justice and equity.

When I first heard about House Bills 1218 and 1231, I was speechless. House Bills 1218 and 1231 would prohibit public school teaching and activities around race, gender, political affiliation, social class and particular classes of people. HB1231 would specifically penalize schools for teaching the 1619 Project.  I’m infuriated that legislators are trying to cover my history. Both HB1218 and HB1231 are insults to my culture, heritage, and the Black people who fought long and hard for the rights many of us enjoy today.

I will not pretend that most public schools do an exceptional job teaching the history of oppression and genocide as it pertains to Arkansas. Schools rarely cover the topic of slavery or its systemic effects on the lives of Black Americans today. If schools do cover these topics, they’re often white-washed versions of the truth—that slavery was a “long time ago” and only had short-term effects on our society.

Nevertheless, it is unjust for legislators to take away the right to teach exclusively about the oppression of one group of people. Schools should teach history regardless of history’s implications. We cannot selectively pick which parts of history to tell and which to not. Instead, we should teach the entire story and leave the rest up to the learner. House Bills 1218 and 1231 would exclude the “bad” parts of history for a more “agreeable” but incorrect view of our state’s past. And a past that is not taught is a history that is repeated.

I understand wanting to gloss over our shameful history and let the past be the past. However, we cannot move on from a past that presently affects our current reality. The effects of slavery are lasting: the lack of Black rights is undeniably etched into the core of America’s existence. Black people, let alone Black women, have yet to gain enough rights to speak freely without backlash from white supremacists. Take this summer, for instance. Police unjustly arrested peaceful protesters; neighbors found protesters hanged in their homes while authorities ruled it suicide; people crashed Black Lives Matter protests to loot and wreak havoc; the government failed to make the fundamental changes necessary to provide a future where Black Americans do not have to fear losing their lives at the hands of a police officer.

Yet Arkansas legislators willingly and readily created a bill that will deprive us of the small voice we have been fighting for centuries to have. It will take more than a bill for me to forget the stories my grandmother shared about growing up Black in America. The Black community will not forget the injustice done to our ancestors that we still experience today.

It is due time for legislators to accept that America was built on the backs of my ancestors. As Rachel Cargle once said, “Until I no longer have to deal with the consequences of what happened to my ancestors, I will be holding you accountable for what your ancestors did because you’re still benefiting from what they built on the backs of people of color.”

History is no people pleaser; we cannot ignore the bad parts of history and function as if they did not happen. History is here for us to learn and grow. If House Bills 1218 and 1231 pass, they would be a blatant denial of justice and our rights to knowledge and truth.

If these two bills are not on your radar, they should be.